Why does "if it weren't for XXX" mean "if XXX didn't exist"?


How has "if it weren't for" got the meaning of

use this when you would do something different if a particular situation did not exist now

(the definition of "if it weren't for" in LDOCE) ?


If we take "it" as "the situation" and "for" as "because of" as suggested by athlonusm, "if it weren't for XXX" will mean "if the reason for it isn't XXX even though I know it is in reality". Then for example

If it weren't for music, world would be a dull place.

will mean

If the reason for it isn't music even though I know it is in reality, world would be a dull place.

It sounds illogical, doesn't it?

Since the answers posted so far are explaining mainly what the subjunctive mood is, I have to emphasize that I know the basic meaning and usage of subjunctive "were".

I wanted to show using the above example about music that its current meaning is beyond its literal meaning. I suppose that there is a historic reason for it to have the current meaning. I want to know that.


Posted 2015-11-17T12:44:39.507

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1This question does not belong to this site, see English language and Usage Stack Exchange. – CipherBot – 2015-11-17T12:51:32.377

Read about "subjunctive 'were' " and irrealis conditions. – Tᴚoɯɐuo – 2015-11-17T12:59:10.460

@TRomano, my question is how "if it weren't for XXX" has got the meaning "if XXX didn't exist". – Aki – 2015-11-17T15:53:13.327

@CipherBot, can I ask you why? – Aki – 2015-11-18T01:13:02.807

The paraphrase is problematic: If the reason for it isn't music even though I know it is in reality, world would be a dull place doesn't make much sense. To paraphrase it with your definition, If it weren't for music, the world would be a dull place --> If we had no music/If music didn't exist/if it wasn't because of music, the world would be a dull place – Damkerng T. – 2015-11-18T02:23:05.047

I commented before the edit that you placed and it was worded as etymology. Etymology questions are better suited to ELU as that is one of the purpose of that site. – CipherBot – 2015-11-18T02:43:19.717

@DamkerngT., I know my paraphrase doesn't make sense. Hence my question "How has it got its meaning?". For example, in your paraphrasing, where does "exist" come from? – Aki – 2015-11-18T04:38:51.680

@Aki It's from your dictionary: "use this when you would do something different if a particular situation did not exist now", "use this when a situation would have been different if something had not happened or someone had not done something in the past", "use this when a situation would be different if something was not happening now or had not happened in the past", and so on. – Damkerng T. – 2015-11-18T04:53:52.933

@DamkerngT., yes. But, "exist" doesn't seem to come from any of the words that make up the sentence. If I interpret the sentence literally I get my paraphrase above. So, I think it has got the current meaning from a historical background or else. I want to know that. – Aki – 2015-11-18T05:24:59.387

Now I see why you added the tag "etymology". FWIW, I agree with athlonusm's answer. For can mean because (of), e.g., If it wasn't because of him, we wouldn't have come this far ~ If it wasn't for him, we wouldn't have come this far. – Damkerng T. – 2015-11-18T05:59:06.317

@DamkerngT., does "if it wasn't because of him" mean literally "if he didn't exist"? It seems to me it doesn't. – Aki – 2015-11-18T06:07:21.060

No. Try to be flexible in comprehension in a second language, and avoid substituting words or phrases with their dictionary definitions. Machines do that, and that's why they're struggling to understand human languages. We're beyond them. – Damkerng T. – 2015-11-18T06:25:24.623

@CipherBot, don't you think "This question does not belong to this site" is a bit strong wording considering we have the "etymology" tag in ELL even when the title is original "etymology of if it weren't for"? – Aki – 2015-11-18T09:49:48.500

I am merely stating the obvious fact of each site having its own slightly different purpose in which this case ELU is (to quote my previous comment) "better suited" for these type of questions. Maybe yes I may have sounded slightly harsh at that as was typing that in a hurry. – CipherBot – 2015-11-18T10:23:25.047

I think your definition might be just a simple and rough way to express the idea of this construction. Him in If it wasn't because of him means something associated with him. What this something associated with him is you should know from the context (look at the second example in my answer: commenting it, I wrote the word help though there was no such a word in the sentence). The existence of a thing can also be something associated with the thing (If it weren't for music), but not always. – athlonusm – 2015-11-18T13:35:35.520

@athlonusm, even if we read "help" from the context, I feel something is still missing. There seems to be a distance between "if the reason for it isn't his help" and "without his help". – Aki – 2015-11-18T15:40:25.730



This is simply a subjunctive construction consisting of "if", "it," "were not", and "for".

One of the uses of the subjunctive is to deal with an irrealis situation - the things referred to are not happening as the speaker is talking.

If I were you, I would have noticed that.

It is recommended that he take two pills a day.

The public supports the motion that they be freed.

If it weren't for that mistake we might have finished the project on time.

John recommended that he try out for the team.

http://www.englishpage.com/minitutorials/subjunctive.html https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/English_subjunctive


Posted 2015-11-17T12:44:39.507

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Are you suggesting that by simply putting the meanings of "if","it", subjunctive "were", "not" and "for" together we can get the meaning “if XXX did not exist”? – Aki – 2015-11-18T04:41:07.373


The preposition for can mean because of. If it weren't for just means that without intervention of the first thing mentioned in the if-clause, the second thing would have happened (or would happen). In other words, the second thing didn't happen (or isn't happening) because of the first thing.

If it wasn't for the ​life ​jacket, I would have ​drowned.

This sentence means that he didn't drown because of the life jacket.

If it weren't for him, I would probably be living on the streets.

This sentence means that if the man hadn't helped, the author would be living on the streets. The author isn't living on the streets because of the man, because of the man's help.

I'd keep a garden if it weren't for having too much to do.

This sentence means that if there weren't too much work to do to keep the garden, the author would keep the garden. The author isn't keeping the garden because of all the work he/she would have to do.

  1. Cambridge Dictionaries: for.
  2. The Free Dictionary: if it weren't for.


Posted 2015-11-17T12:44:39.507

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If my name were Aki, and we were both in the same room, and someone called out "Aki!", we would both turn around.

But my name is not Aki. The statement above refers to a hypothetical. It is in that sense that we say "were" refers to that which does not actually exist.


Posted 2015-11-17T12:44:39.507

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